Ori Schwarz on his book, Sociological Theory for Digital Society


Interview by: Dan M. Kotliar

Dan Kotliar: There is something very convenient, even comforting, in thinking about our theories as timeless, as endlessly generalizable analytical frameworks that easily cross chronological boundaries. What first prompted you to think that some of the most classical sociological theories may need revising?

Ori Schwarz:Sociological theories strive to be timeless, we always want our theoretical insights about social life to be generalizable beyond their immediate context, but theories are always developed while looking at specific societies, so they take for granted things that can’t be generally taken for granted. I wrote this book since I’ve noticed that the introduction of digital technologies has transformed in significant ways what sociological theory has taken for granted. For example, that social life takes place in situations, or that interactions and objects are completely different things, or that social capital is a symbolic capital. These transformations pose theoretical challenges that I tried to identify and solve through theoretical revisions. How did I stumble across these gaps between our theories and shifting reality? Partly, while trying to use old concepts during writing, which is very much like trying on your old trousers after the summer to find out they no longer fit. But it also has much to do with the constant movement between research and teaching. To teach theory you must be very explicit about the implicit assumptions of different theories, and then the gaps between these assumptions and the realities we study become much more apparent and disturbing. This constant movement sensitized me to the wider theoretical meaning of the transformations I study.

Dan Kotliar: Rather than calling for the rise of Digital Sociology as yet another sociological subfield, your book offers something broader – a revision of sociology’s classical theories in light of digitalization. Could you say a few words about the difference between the two, and about the need for a digitally-informed sociology rather than a Digital Sociology?

Ori Schwarz: Establishing new subfields is generally a clever strategy: it makes the pie bigger by creating journals, jobs and graduate programs, and more importantly, it creates a shared intellectual space where sociologists interested in a certain social sphere like law, family, or education may develop their unique questions, methods and theories that can later inspire scholars beyond their subfield. The problem is: digitalization is not yet another sphere of social life. Digitalization is a set of processes that fundamentally transform nearly all spheres of social life. Today, when digital platforms and algorithms mediate and remold the ways we find love, work, trade, communicate with our families or fight for social change; the decision-making processes of governments and corporations, and the management of workers, citizens and risks, the digital is no longer a slice of social life to be studied separately as in the days digital life was a parallel reality in IRC-chats. More importantly, digitalization changes the answers to questions that are not specific to any particular subdiscipline, to the most fundamental questions of sociology: What are the basic units of social life and social analysis? What is power and how does it work? How space and time are organized and how does the past keep living in the present? Which mechanisms bind together different individuals, their actions and their mental states into something bigger? Which forms of capital inform social stratification and what characterizes them? These are the kind of questions that very much define us as a discipline. I read much digital sociology and I love it, it’s important to empirically study digitalization, but it’s simply not enough. What our discipline needs in order to remain relevant is to explore how digitalization changes the answers to some of our core questions. This would also demonstrate the relevance of our theoretical legacy to other disciplines that are interested in digitally-mediated social life, because our theoretical toolkit offers the best point of departure to study digital societies if only we adapt these tools to the changing realities.

Dan Kotliar: Many social scientists see the rapid digitalization and datafication of social life as a reason to move into computational methods and study what they understand to be the social through big data analyses. How do you see this move? Does the digitalization of the social call for a revision of our methods, alongside our theories?

Ori Schwarz: The digital objectification of social life, their automatic self-documentation, opens great opportunities. Social interactions now are constantly translated into data objects that are available to the social actors themselves, such as Whatsapp chats, and into hidden data available to algorithmic analysis. In the book I focus on the fascinating theoretical implications of this transformation, but it also has methodological significance. First of all, the fact the interactions turn into objects may revolutionize ethnography. Personally I find it much more exciting, even if it doesn’t have the same high-techish aura as computational methods. Objectified social life can also be analyzed quantitatively, although data is too often proprietary or ethically dubious (because, unlike digital corporations, academics are still trained to feel uncomfortable about making experiments or collecting data without informed consent). I have more reservations about the paradigm shift heralded by AI and big data scientists and its promise for the so-called end of theory, for purely empiricist knowledge that can predict the future without having to engage in tiresome hypothesizing. This view gradually creeps from applied sciences into academe across disciplines, so I’ll make it clear: I don’t believe in the end of theory, not only because it will put me out of work, but mainly since I believe the aim of academic knowledge is explaining, not predicting. I’m also bothered by the dangerous political implications of the promise of perfect prediction and its detereminist ideology; for example, Israel has pre-emptively arrested hundreds of Palestinian teenagers based on algorithmic risk calculation. There are attempts to domesticate these new methods into a forensic social science, and use them without giving up the scientific project altogether, which is a risky endeavor which is too early to evaluate. But overall, objectification introduces increased knowability of the social, which not only transforms social power but can also transform the production of sociological knowledge.

Dan Kotliar: In the book you argue that the sociological theory of power should move away from the problem of free will, and that contemporary power operates independently of people’s consciousness. What does it mean for our ability to resist such powers?

Ori Schwarz: First, to avoid misunderstanding, human consciousness doesn’t go anywhere. Yet, I think it can no longer be the single focus of the sociology of power. Throughout the 20th century, the main question that haunted the sociology of power was, “Why are we still bounded when we are freer than ever”? And very different schools agreed that to answer this question we must look at the consciousness, how we are dominated through our consciousness, how it becomes an instrument of power and domination – think of Weber, Gramsci, Althusser, Foucault, Bourdieu, Lukes, Scott and many others. But today, power and governance in multiple contexts operate through algorithms, that are generative rules, as Lash and Beer call them. Unlike regulative rules like laws, generative rules are realized or enforced automatically in multiple concrete cases without having to convince the dominated to obey them or the agents of power, bureaucrats, to enforce them. Indeed, they are usually hidden, they do not need actors to be aware of them to be effective; they may change often without us knowing; and they govern our life. The more algorithmic power and governance become common and consequential, the more the question you asked about how to resist it becomes crucial. Generally, people resist it by trying to produce lay knowledge of these rules and manipulate them, just as we do with the hidden rules of nature governing our life, even though unfortunately, unlike our notion of rules of nature, algorithmic rules tend to change rather quickly, evading our knowledge. To theorize resistance to algorithmic power I offer the notion of resistance through detours. Unlike laws, these rules just cannot be violated, so the trick is to find detours or loopholes, technical ways to violate their spirit but not their letter: to make the algorithm classify you in a certain way to avoid sanctions or to allow you to act in ways that would have been otherwise blocked. For example, it’s very easy to prevent people from sending one another banned words or photos over instant messaging, but they may still modify their message without changing its meaning. Even when rules are inviolable, their power is not unlimited and governance projects can be effectively thwarted.

Dan Kotliar: If you happened to share a driverless Uber ride with one of the classical sociological theorists you mention in your book, what would be the first thing you’d point out to them about today’s digitally-infused society?

Ori Schwarz: Thank you so much for not making me choose whom! I would point out at the objectification of social life (the constant translation of actions, interactions and social relationships into digital data objects) and I’d stress the performativity of these representations of social life. For example, the fact that social network maps like those studied by social network analysts are no longer models or representations of social life but turn into data that shapes social life by helping algorithms decide how to treat us: which options will be opened up or foreclosed to us, what information will be presented to us, whether we qualify for a security risk, with huge influences on our life chances. Actually it doesn’t really matter who’ll join the Uber ride, since this transformation is relevant to any sociologist, alive or dead, as it remolds power, temporality, collectivity… almost any dimension of sociological theory.

Dan Kotliar: In your book you deal with symbolic interactionism, Marxist theory, Bourdieusian theory, and more. Are there any theories that, in your view, still need revising but were left out of the current book? In other words, what should we expect to find in the second edition of The Codes that Bind Us Together?

Ori Schwarz: I didn’t have enough pages for solidarity. I know, it sounds awful, but it’s true. In the book I discuss at length new forms of social life that I call “connective” and that share with collectivity some features but not others, and throughout the book I repeatedly warn the readers that the emergence of these new forms, these new mechanisms that bind actions, emotions and consciousnesseses of different individuals into something bigger, doesn’t mean we can simply forget about collectivity. In fact, collectivity and group solidarity (including their utterly unpleasant manifestations, like group hatred and violence) interact with connectivity in fascinating ways. I had some thoughts about Durkheim, and what happens to totemism and collective emotions in digital society, but before I had time to fully develop my argument, it became clear that I ran out of space; so in the second edition you may well expect more solidarity.